Paralympic swimmer shares how the sport helped her cope with rare syndrome

Alex Lasker
·5-min read

When Paralympic athlete McClain Hermes started losing her vision at 8 years old, she had just one question for her parents: “Will I still be able to swim?”

Although her mom wasn’t quite sure how to answer her at the time, the now-19-year-old has more than proven the answer to be a resounding “yes.”

McClain Hermes, swimmer
Credit: McClain Hermes

Hermes, a Georgia native and decorated para-athlete, has had her heart set on competing in the Olympics since she was a young child in love with swimming.

But her dreams changed in 2009, following a harrowing incident where everything suddenly “went black” as she sat eating lunch in her middle school cafeteria.

“My retinas detached,” she told In The Know. “And I lost all of the sight in my right eye.”

Hermes, who was in the third grade at the time, underwent four emergency eye surgeries to repair her retina detachments due to a rare genetic disorder called Wagner syndrome, which causes progressive vision loss.

At first, she was left completely blind in her right eye with no light perception and with the ability to see only light and color out of her left eye.

But over time, she became completely blind in both eyes, a setback that seemed to throw a wrench in her Olympic plans.

“As my vision decreased, it was harder for me to swim,” Hermes explained. “And I got really frustrated because I was running into the wall and I didn’t know what to do.”

Credit: McClain Hermes
Credit: McClain Hermes

Not one to give up on her aspirations, Hermes learned about Paralympic swimming and the greater adaptive sports community, which she says gave her a sense of belonging and helped her cope with losing her vision.

“I felt instantly comfortable because everybody around me had something going on where I wasn’t looked at differently,” she said. “I wasn’t stared at, I wasn’t judged for being there: I was seen as their equal, and nobody was different.”

“We were all in the same boat,” she added. “We all had challenges we were overcoming and we all loved swimming.”

As Hermes acclimated to her condition, her bond with the sport grew even stronger.

“I think that because I had something that I loved, which was swimming, and I was able to adapt it to my blindness, that really helped me overcome my disability,” she said, “because I had an outlet where I could kind of vent my frustrations and my sadness and say, ‘Even though I am blind, and I can’t do what everybody else does on land, I’m still their equal in the pool.'”

Credit: McClain Hermes
Credit: McClain Hermes

In 2016 at the age of 15, Hermes became the youngest member of Team USA to compete at the 2016 Paralympic Games in Rio de Janeiro, according to Swimming World Magazine.

But despite the impressive feat, Hermes says the accomplishment she is most proud of is a silver medal she won at the World Para Swimming Championships in 2017 in honor of her best friend Grace Bunke, a para-swimmer who died from osteosarcoma in 2018.

“Yes, that was second place, and it wasn’t a gold medal,” she explained. “But there was a story behind it.”

Hermes, who refers to the particular win as her “Grace Race,” learned that Bunke’s cancer had returned and that this time it was terminal just before the qualifier swim meet.

“I was at Paralympic Trials for World Championships in Colorado Springs, and that morning, I woke up and my mom told me the news,” she recalled. “And I was so upset. And my mom said, ‘Well, what are you going to do for Grace?’ And I said, ‘Well, I’m going to make Worlds for Grace.'”

That day, Hermes swam the 100-meter backstroke, which qualified her for the championships, where she would go on to win the silver in the 100-meter backstroke. During the winning race, Hermes wrote Bunke’s name on her right hand to honor her and was able to give the medal to her before she died.

“That was my biggest accomplishment,” she said.

To anyone struggling to cope with vision loss — or any major obstacle or life change — Hermes says she advocates for finding something you love and diving right into it.

“Right now, we’re all in a worldwide pandemic,” she said. “And finding something that you love and that you’re passionate about can help you overcome anything.”

“I find that if you have an outlet or a place to go to where you can be free and be yourself and not be afraid, that will help you overcome anything, any challenge you’re going through,” she added. “So long as you can find something that you love and continue to do it through any adversity, I think you’ll come out stronger than before.”

If you liked this story, check out this article on Twitch star Sweet Anita, who uses her platform to raise awareness for Tourette’s syndrome.

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